Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
John Forbes Nash
John Forbes Nash Jr. (born June 13, 1928) is an American mathematician who works in game theory and differential geometry. He shared the 1994 Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences with two other game theorists, Reinhard Selten and John Harsanyi.
After a promising start to his mathematical career, Nash began to suffer from schizophrenia around the age of 29, an illness from which he recovered some thirty years later.
From June 1945-June 1948 Nash studied at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (now Carnegie Mellon University), intending to become an engineer like his father. Instead, he developed a deep love for mathematics and what became a lifelong interest in subjects such as number theory, Diophantine equations, quantum mechanics and relativity theory.
He loved solving problems. At Carnegie he became interested in the 'negotiation problem', which John von Neumann had left unsolved in his book The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944), and participated in the game theory group there. His theory, now called the Nash equilibrium, is a corollary of the minimax theorem stated earlier by John Von Neumann in 1928.
From Pittsburgh he went to Princeton University where he worked on his equilibrium theory. He received a Ph.D. in 1950 with a dissertation on non-cooperative games. The thesis, which was written under the supervision of Albert Tucker, contained the definition and properties of what would later be called the Nash equilibrium. His studies on this subject led to three articles:
- 'Equilibrium Points in N-person Games', published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) (1950);
- The Bargaining Problem (April 1950) in Econometrica, and
- Two-person Cooperative Games (January 1953), also in Econometrica.
John Nash was born in the small Appalachian town of Bluefield, West Virginia, the son of John Nash Sr., an electrical engineer, and Virginia Martin, a teacher. By the time he was about twelve years old he was showing great interest in carrying out scientific experiments in his room at home.
Martha, his sister, seems to have been a remarkably normal child while Johnny seemed different from other children. She wrote later in life, "Johnny was always different. [My parents] knew he was different. And they knew he was bright. He always wanted to do things his way. Mother insisted I do things for him, that I include him in my friendships. ... but I wasn't too keen on showing off my somewhat odd brother".
At MIT, he met Alicia Lopez-Harrison de Lardé, a math student from El Salvador, whom he married in February 1957. Their son, John Charles Martin (b. 1959), remained nameless for a year because Alicia, having just committed Nash to a mental hospital, felt that he should have a say in what to name the baby. John became a mathematician, but, like his father, he was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic. Nash had another son, John David (b. June 19, 1953), by Eleanor Stier, but refused to have anything to do with them. Sylvia Nasar, Nash's biographer, cites evidence that Nash was bisexual. However, John and Alicia denied such on 60 Minutes in 2002.
Although she divorced him in 1963, Alicia took him back in 1970. According to Sylvia Nasar's biography of Nash, Alicia referred to him as her "boarder," and they lived "like two distantly related individuals under one roof" until he won the Nobel Prize in 1994, when they renewed their relationship. They remarried on June 1, 2001.
In 1958, Nash began to show the first signs of his mental illness. He became paranoid and was admitted into the McLean Hospital, April-May 1959, where he was diagnosed with 'paranoid schizophrenia'. After a problematic stay in Paris and Geneva, Nash returned to Princeton in 1960. He remained in and out of mental hospitals until 1970, undergoing various treatments including insulin (a.k.a. hypoglycemic) coma therapy.
Some of his treatments may have worsened his condition because his doctors did not realize the centrality of work and community to curing mental illness, and the most successful "treatment" seems to have been administrative decisions at Princeton's mathematics department and computer center to allow Nash to use university facilities for his researches during this period, although the researches were initially delusional.
In student and on-campus legend, Nash became "The Phantom of Fine Hall" (Fine Hall is Princeton's mathematics center), a shadowy figure who would scribble arcane equations on blackboards in the middle of the night. The legend appears in a work of fiction based on Princeton life, "The Mind-Body Problem", by Rebecca Goldstein.
However, encouraged by his wife Alicia, Nash persisted in working in a communitarian setting where his eccentricities were unremarked and developed, among other interests, an interest in the calculation of exact values of large numbers, researches which drove him to Princeton's Information Centers, where he developed computer programs (of high quality) for his work. Here he had more contact with Princetonians and also, in the late 1980s, began to use electronic mail to gradually link with working mathematicians who realized that he was "John Nash" and his new work had value.
They formed part of the nucleus of a group that contacted the Nobel committee and was able to vouch for Nash's ability to receive the award in recognition of his early work.
The 1990s brought a return of his genius, and Nash has taken care to manage the symptoms of his mental illness. He is still hoping to score substantial scientific results. His recent work involves some very interesting ventures in advanced game theory including partial agency which show that as in early career, he prefers to select his own path and problems.
In the summer of 1950 he worked at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, where he returned for shorter periods in 1952 and 1954. From 1950-1951 he taught calculus courses at Princeton, studied and managed to stay out of military service. During this time, he proved the Nash embedding theorem, an important result in differential geometry about manifolds.
He currently holds an appointment in mathematics at Princeton. While cautious with people he does not know, insiders cite a dry sense of humor.
The contribution of his wife Alicia was quite significant. She supported him during his delusional phase and saw how membership, no matter how humble, in the Princeton community helped Nash get better. Alicia also worked, rather courageously, as a computer programmer in male-dominated companies to support herself, John, and their son.
In 1994 he received the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel as a result of his game theory work at Princeton as a graduate student.
Movie inspired by Nash's life
The film A Beautiful Mind, released in 2001 and directed by Ron Howard, was inspired by Nash's life; it received four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film is loosely based on the biography of the same title, written by Sylvia Nasar (1999).
The film has been criticized for its inaccurate portrayal of John Nash's life and schizophrenia as well as for the incorrect representation of the famous Nash Equilibrium. The PBS documentary A Brilliant Madness attempts to portray his life more accurately.
Major departures from Nash's life and the accurate book include no mention of Nash's sexual adventures while at Rand and his second family in Boston... although his son from Boston plays a bit part in the movie as a nurse, manhandling Nash in the hospital.
Furthermore, his preservation at Princeton is shown by the movie as exclusively the work of professors in the Mathematics department while in fact administrators, especially at Firestone Library and the Information Centers in later years, also played a role. They are unfortunately portrayed in the movie only as one library clerk who didn't get interoffice mail.
Also, Nash's hallucinations weren't visual and auditory as shown in the film. They were auditory, exclusively. It is true that his handlers, both from faculty and administration, had to introduce him to assistants and strangers.
- Extensive John Nash Biography
- Autobiography at the Nobel Prize website
- Nash's home page at Princeton
- John Forbes Nash Jr Information
- Nash FAQ from Princeton's Mudd Library, including a copy of his dissertation in PDF format
- Beautiful mind, unconventional matter, a 2001 Daily Princetonian interview
- MacTutor biography of Nash
- PBS documentary
- John Nash speaks out about alleged bisexuality
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